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Vote on Fire Island phone service Thursday

A proposed plan would eliminate landline phone service

A proposed plan would eliminate landline phone service in western Fire Island. Credit: iStock

A plan to eliminate landline phone service in western Fire Island is scheduled to be voted on by the state Public Service Commission Thursday amid concern it could leave people on the barrier island unable to make calls if a storm knocks out electrical power.

In its application, Verizon is proposing to amend its tariff, so the company could abandon copper wire in favor of a wireless alternative, if it demonstrates that "a substantial portion of its facilities in the area is destroyed, rendered unusable or beyond reasonable repair."

After superstorm Sandy, Verizon -- the sole provider of landline and DSL service on the barrier island -- implemented a wireless voice service in western Fire Island called Voice Link. It gives customers a dial tone without the company having to dig up and repair miles of storm-damaged copper wire.

But some residents and business owners who had Voice Link installed after Sandy say the connection is unstable and unreliable, and doesn't provide for DSL Internet or fax service. And critics of the plan, including the Communications Workers of America, are concerned that the proposal is vague and would allow Verizon to withdraw landline services across New York.

The state attorney general's office Wednesday sent a letter asking the Public Service Commission to table the decision, seek public input and review the potential impacts to customers of switching to wireless.

The attorney general's office expressed concern that Voice Link leaves customers more vulnerable during power outages. According to Verizon, the system is charged through an electrical outlet, and the battery backup allows only two hours of talking time.

"In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers experienced how their lives can be disrupted and their ability to cope in emergencies made more difficult without working telecommunications," the letter from the attorney general's office reads.

A public service commission spokesman said Wednesday evening that despite the attorney general's office request, the Verizon proposal is still on Thursday's agenda.

Peter Sikora, a research economist with the CWA District 1, which represents 14,000 Verizon workers, said the wireless system is "not strong enough."

Tom Maguire, Verizon senior vice president for national operations support, said the provider has been "beefing up our wireless network" on Fire Island to address concerns that the network could be overloaded, especially when the population booms during the summer. "Our obligation is to provide dial tone," Maguire said.

But Tara McBride Heslin, a year-round resident of Lonelyville, said she's worried her spotty Voice Link service won't consistently work. "If something happens to anyone here on Fire Island during a power outage that could have been prevented if only they had a working phone line, I want to make sure Verizon is held accountable," she said.

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